Nicholas Brembre 21

by socalledstories

The port of Calais was grey before dawn, but wait and you would see feints of colour grow like ghouls and gather on the roofs, becoming substantial in anticipation of the light. Before long the sunshine would engulf the stalls of the markets and the shops of the town and Nicholas would be able to get on with his business. The sale of his wool was already arranged, as well as much of what he would bring back with him – although he was surprised on this point by an additional item which he now saw advancing along the quay.

‘Good morning, Sir Nicholas. You may be able to assist me…’

‘Geoffrey Chaucer! Go you to God. Why are you here? One of your feckless foreign missions to untangle the ambassadorial bollocks?’

‘If they were as colourful as your language, they might feel more worthy of the the effort. Diplomacy dulls by definition.’ Geoffrey was a servant of the royal household and performed a range of roles in addition to that of controller of the customs on wool. He was often sent to assist with negotiations abroad. ‘Are you returning soon?’ he asked.

‘As soon as we can. You want to join us?’

‘Yes. I am exhausted by the company of one of my party and must admit defeat. Stupidity is entertaining for a while but you just can’t keep up with it.’

‘I hope I can do better for you. It would be pleasant to have your company and you might have some views on a problem that has arisen.’

A party from the cog walked into the centre of the town. Nicholas showed Ralf the rare spices that Adam would have selected for him, such as ambergris, cubeb and spikenard. They were not bought in bulk since they would not sell in large quantities. Ralf was concentrated like a trap. His eyes fixed fiercely on each dry offering. Under his breath he repeated the names until they stuck. He hardly looked up at Nicholas but clamped his lips together when addressed.

Nicholas could see that Geoffrey was amused by his apprentice. He had been told of the accusation against Ralf and looked very doubtful of it. He followed him closely, appearing always on the point of asking something that might unmask him. But the challenge never came and in place of it Geoffrey chatted to Nicholas about anything that came to mind: the tightness of his boots; the suspiciousness of the French; what the stupid person had said about the nature of man; God’s demands on the ageing soul; female dress in Milan; the impossibility that birds could fly. Nicholas found the flittering path hard to follow and so asked of Geoffrey’s recent task.

‘I’ve been in Lombardy on a diplomatic mission, as you guessed.’

‘I believe you were in Lombardy two years since.’

‘Four years, in fact; time moves quickly in retreat. But yes, this is the same mission but a little bit that was left behind. They have sent me back as the least important of their number, and so the cheapest tool for the job, which is now done. But I never complain of being sent abroad, particularly to Italian lands, particularly to Lombardy. I have eaten such food there! Grana padano I could eat until I turned into a cheese myself. I may have done so already.’

‘Perhaps you are expanding a little around the waist. But a cheese has none of the appendages of a man, least of all that vital organ that can think and give rise to speech. However much you ate, I would be surprised if we could not distinguish you from a wheel of sour milk.’

Nicholas and other members of the party lodged in a house close to the centre of the town. He sat up by candlelight to write a letter. It was addressed to Matilde, relict of Richard Utterby, on the best piece of paper he could find. He picked and clawed at the grainy surface, then flooded it with ink, causing black veins to run out along the lines of fracture – all in an attempt to free himself of knowledge that was misplaced. He was pierced by the idea that she did not yet know her son was dead. This catch of time between Adam’s drowning and the possibility of his mother’s grief stretched Nichol’s senses. It seemed an offence against nature. He saw the boy’s body sinking slowly to the bottom of the ocean, leaking bubbles like last words for his mother that would never reach her.

The letter was too long. All it needed was the truth. Other matter had seeped in: his own pain and regret, which took space enough to look like an apology. Then a contrary attempt to fight the tragic tale, to summon God’s mysterious foresight, to reduce the likely suffering of the victim, to sooth the wound away.

He wrote again, a short letter stating only what was needed. He would visit Adam’s mother on his return. He might indeed arrive before the letter, but it was better to put it on another boat so that the message had a second chance of reaching dry earth.

Geoffrey joined him as he replaced the candle with which he had made the seal. The conversation wandered for a while but found itself eventually in the fates of the apprentices, particularly the one that was not yet fixed. Nicholas was troubled as to whether he should enquire further into the incident. The issue was not one of achieving justice, of determining whether or not Ralf was guilty. How could this now be settled? Instead, the question was whether some effort or show, at least, should be made to acknowledge that agency was suspected. Should they imitate the action of a court, though unable to complete the process? Geoffrey encouraged the idea, but the more he did so the less it thrived in Nicholas’ imagination. Without the ability to summon witnesses with knowledge of the boy there was nothing to do.

‘There is no-one to speak to his character but me and I have little to say. I have lost a valuable apprentice and I am left with an untrained child whose nature is much in doubt.’

‘Can I speak with him?’ said Geoffrey.

‘You think you can learn something?’

‘I can’t believe that your little apprentice pushed a living being into the sea. I’d like to be sure of it. Sometimes a person can seem suspicious for the wrong reason.’

‘I don’t mind if you try, but wait until we are back on the waves. I don’t want him jumping ship in Calais if he takes offence. If he wants to take offence and jump ship in the channel I have no objection.’

Watching the loading of a ship was one of Nicholas’ special pleasures. Even if the vessel belonged to someone else, even to a rival, he felt the rush of great forces in motion, the pull of city toward city, the focus of many men, humble, rich, engaged in mining, manufacture, transport, trade, all alive and busy, pouring their blood into the ship. Few of these men came to tread her boards, most never even looked on her. If all tried to stand on her at once, all would drown, not just Adam. Sometimes Nicholas thought the cog would sink with those who were meant to be aboard. When, at loading, the crew were most visible and extra hands were hired to assist with the task, it seemed that the ship had shrunk to the size of a river boat and was being burdened beyond capacity, with the idea that most bodies could thrash their way to the bank. As men stood at the edge and leaned out against the stretch of the timber, or crossed and recrossed the lip with barrels, baskets and boxes, Nicholas felt that the ship would tip at any moment. The shape of the hull above the water seemed suddenly unsupportive. It was too steep and there was little at the top to prevent a fall. Only at bow and stern did it grant sufficient curve above the water, as well as a better barrier to human folly.

From the shore, as he supervised, he could see the red and yellow tinged planks as they overlapped along the length of the cog. It was made as sound as any other ship, sounder than most, with its hundreds of clenchnails banged through and back to keep the hull together. These odd thoughts that fought against each other: the wonder of the task and the fear of man’s fragility – he must not let them distract him from the detail of his business. He must ensure that spices were wrapped and watertight, barrels stacked where they would not roll, delicate goods were highest placed, and that as little as possible be slipped into pockets or dark corners on the shore.

The mast cried up to the sky while the grey sail stayed muffled in its curls. Soon their vanities would be reversed as the canvas puffed out in the channel winds, all but obscuring the churlish wood.

The passage back was dull. The cloud started as Sangatte Castle lost its detail. Dover could not be seen but Nicholas knew they were headed toward her. The captain wanted to keep close to the English coast. He was spooked by the death of the boy, even though he had likely seen a hundred men lost in his time. Nicholas stood on the aftcastle with Geoffrey beside him. Dim light occasionally warmed the cloud.

‘I told him a story,’ said the diplomat. ‘A girl is cross because her sister is put to tend the chickens, while she has to look after the pigs. So she plays a trick, she dresses up as a fox and steals a hen and hides it in the pigsty and her sister is beaten for the loss. Soon afterwards the older sister dies of a fever and the younger feels so guilty about the trick that she blames herself. She lies down in the pigsty and waits to die herself. The father finds the dead chicken but he forgives his living daughter and carries her back to the house: “Do not cosset blame that is beyond you. God has called your sister to Him and He did not ask your leave.”’

‘You think that Ralf has been blaming himself because he argued with Adam or because he did not catch him as he fell?’

‘That is what I thought. So I told the story and let him think a little. It is a tale without great depth but sometimes simplicity can draw out subtlety, such as your apprentice undoubtedly possesses. He responded positively to the conclusion, but perhaps a little too much so, which is the trap. I have changed my mind: he did the deed. Probably got Adam to look over the edge, and then it was easy.’

‘I am grateful for your efforts. Ralf tips towards the abyss.’

‘And yet no mortal eye confirms that wrong was done and God, as we have seen, is jealous of his surety.’

Fat grey shapes annoyed the clouds suggesting land ahead.

‘Albion – white cliffs!’ Nicholas shouted out towards the shadows. Cold, damp air rushed into his lungs. ‘My chest is filled so full I cannot move. But I don’t really know the stuff of it.’ His tongue was suddenly loose like a squirrel pursued. He must not lose his skin. ‘So many things! Pride of country…recognition of home…smelling my own soil…that bosom-of-your-mother feeling. The coolness of the chalk against the softness of the grass.’

Geoffrey coughed a cough that was not related to ill-health. ‘What I always think when I see the cliffs, or whichever bit of England comes first, is: “Thank God I may yet survive this journey!”’

Nicholas, who liked Geoffrey Chaucer, was annoyed that he had exposed his deeper feelings to light contempt. He looked away, but Geoffrey was undeterred.

‘The wonders of life are only there while we still possess it – as your apprentice would tell you, if only he were still in possession. Although, of course, if he were still in possession he would not have learned the lesson of the wonders of life.’

There was crisis in La Riole. Felice was performing a dance of bobbing and diving to demonstrate that much effort could be made to no good effect. Gombert was absent, probably hiding in the cellar. Washing hung in the courtyard was returning to a sodden state, since no-one had noticed the rain.

Idonia appeared from the solar, looking the same colour as the linen and slightly wet herself. ‘We’ve lost Robert,’ she hissed.

‘You’ve lost him? How?’

‘He’s not in the house.’

‘He has places he hides.’

‘I know that as well as you. We’ve been looking for an hour. He isn’t here. The servants have gone out onto the streets and to the houses of friends. I don’t know what I can do now.’

‘Do nothing,’ said Nicholas. ‘I will deal with him.’

Robert reappeared as the sun’s rays were sliding from the roof of the house.

‘I met with someone in the churchyard.’

‘Which churchyard?’ asked his mother.

‘Santoninny. We did some business.’

‘Business? Who was this person?’ demanded his father.

‘It was two people but I don’t want to say their names.’

‘Why should it matter what you want?’

‘I can’t remember what their names are.’


‘I don’t know. They didn’t tell me.’

‘Well, that’s a fine string of words. First you don’t want to say, then you can’t remember, then it turns out that you never knew. We’re going backwards.’

‘Whoever it was, what did they do? Are you hurt?’ asked Idonia.

‘Yes. I fell over a curb and banged my knee. I’ve got a bruise – look. That was on the way back, after I got lost.’

‘How long were you lost? Were you frightened?’

‘So he should be. Why did you think it would be a good thing to go out in the first place and how did you manage it?’

‘Gap by the fence post. Then you climb down into the space by the cellar of the end shop.’

‘The world is a big place, Robert,’ said Idonia. ‘It’s not ready for a small person like you. No wonder it lost you. We were scared too.’

‘You haven’t told us about the business,’ snapped Nicholas.

‘I shipped two snake skins to the stable and I got three animals to bring back.’

‘Where are the animals? Show me.’

Robert unwound three wooden figures from a piece of blanket and Idonia took them inside.

‘Stables are for horses, not pigs and wolves.’

‘But father, you get things from the stable, big sacks of fiery powder and barrels that leak blood.’

‘Go inside and wait for me in the solar.’ Nicholas walked through to the garden at the back of the house to look for a space big enough for a boy to pass through. But when he found it he could not believe it. Impossible to hold onto anything in this world when the body of a child could slip through the parting of a bird’s beak. ‘Guy! Peter! Find some wood – a few twigs or splinters perhaps – and stop this gap!’

‘The animals come from my sister Margaret’s,’ said Idonia as Nicholas entered the hall. ‘Felice recognises them too. I can guess the two traders he met at St Antonin’s.’

Nicholas said nothing. His eyes hurt. His proud house was filled with water and where there had been light and air was now unbreathable gloom.

‘Don’t be too angry with him, Nichol. Thomas and John are older and should not have encouraged him.’

Nicholas took a stick up to the solar. Robert’s eyes were sad and surprised. Did he think he would escape punishment? He began to beat his son but could not keep his grip for holding too tight. Cramp seized him, contorting his right hand. The miscreant ran from the room and Nicholas did not try to stop him. He could not see Robert for the faces of the apprentices.